Intimacy: a developmental perspective

This study develops an empirically based taxonomy of closeness in personal relationships that is applicable for both genders across the life course for English- and Xhosa-speaking inhabitants of Grahamstown, South Africa. The intent was to confront certain problems of theoretical incoherence and hence of fragmentation in empirical research have beset the still relatively new area of interpersonal closeness, or intimacy, in academic psychology. To this end the author has sought to develop an analytical delineation of the parameters of intimacy in general through a comprehensive and unbiased research strategy. A rigorously random sample of 200 inhabitants of Grahamstown was divided egually by gender, ethnicity, and five age groupings. The subjects replied to an openended questionnaire of 56 items, many which required them to name an individual (or i n d i v i d u als) w h o m they would choose in a series of closeness contexts. Life histories were also gathered. All answers were coded, with relationship responses divided into the three age-, ethnic- and gender-neutral categories of "family," "friends" and "other." The null hypotnesis that intimacy is a single factor was disproved by a count procedure to measure homogeneity/ heterogeneity of response. Although no one mentioned the same person in response to all the guestions, neither were the responses widely dispersed. Thus one might conclude that the phenomenon of closeness is multidimensional, rather than either completely homogeneous or totally heterogeneous. On the basis of the ratio between family, friend, and other responses, a nonparametric "goodnecs-of-fit" test (confirmed by Cramer's V) compared the pattern of responses on each guestion to that of every other. The method then clustered together response ratios that fitted closely with at least two others in the group. This procedure identified eleven dimensions of closeness, nine of which form a Closeness Continuum ranging from those with a high ratio of family responses (Ascribed category) to those in which the family-friend ratio is more nearly equal (voluntary category). This division enables a researcher to distinguish between "familiar" and '‘friend-like" close relationships without making a formal kin/nonkin dichotomization. The two dimensions which fall outside the Closeness Continuum deal with the practical areas of finances and personal services, respectively. The balance of the study looks at the three independent variables — age, ethnicity, and gender — as regards both their homogeneity/heterogeneity of responses and their correlations with the dimensions of closeness. Most interesting with regard to age is the finding that children and middle-aged adults scored proportionally higher on ascribed closeness while young adults were highest on the voluntary dimensions. Young adulthood, and to a lesser extent adolescence and senior adulthood, are each in their own right periods of transition in close relationships. Quantitative results agreed with a careful hermeneutic analysis of the qualitative life history material. The findings raise serious questions about studies of closeness based upon samples of college students. Xhosa and English-speaking networks of closeness were totally segregated from each other (an artefact of institutionalized racism). Although black South Africans listed more close others at the outset of the interview, their range of mentions on the questionnaire was no greater than that of the white English-speakers. On the closeness dimensions, blacks mentioned somewhat more family than did the whites, especially on the ascribed end of the continuum, but the differences were not so great as might have been expected, given studies on working class personal relationships. Striking differences were noted, however, with regard to discursive idiom about relationships. With regard to gender, male and female family/friend mentions on the Closeness Continuum did not differ significantly. In terms of whether respondents mentioned males or females, however, significant differences emerged. In the Ascribed dimensions, females mentioned males and females about egually, thus nnt rejecting the null hypothesis, whereas males mentioned femaAes two to three times as often, an asymmetry matched by an imbalance of division of labour in the Practical category. In the Voluntary dimensions, same-gender mentions predominated. Further, where males mentioned females or females mentioned males, the mentions were almost exclusively family members (except for the young adult group). The implications of these findings for contemporary feminist psychological theory are discussed at length in the text.